Tag Archives: Bruce Kirkland

Cary Grant - The Vault Collection

Cary Grant – The Vault Collection

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Cary Grant – The Vault Collection

In this era of self-isolation, what do film critics do when confined to home? They watch movies, of course. Silly question.

But what movies? That is the challenge. After 36 years as senior film critic of The Toronto Sun, I have seen thousands of movies and collected countless more on DVD and Bluray.

Now, even in semi-retirement, I am keen for more but unable to go to cinemas. So my private collection is solace and sustenance — along with fine French wines and my wife Rachel Sa’s delightful company.

The decisions? We watched a wide range from Jayne Mansfield’s bombshell debut in The Girl Can’t Help It to the latest Stars Wars episode, The Rise of Skywalker. But we did find one obsession for nightly viewing: The 18 black-and-white titles in the historic box set, Cary Grant: The Vault Collection.

The series kicks off with his 1932 debut in a lightweight romantic comedy, This is the Night. The Venice plot is thin and Grant, the former Archibald Alec Leach, gets fifth billing.

But he instantly makes it obvious he is leading man material for Hollywood. His qualities include devastatingly good looks, easy charm, self-effacing humour, oddball comic timing, a mid-Atlantic accent and a suave demeanour that barely whispers of his torturous upbringing in Bristol, England.

These 18 movies range from 1932, in the bawdy pre-code period, through 1936, when censorship repressed sexual innuendo. Together, they present “a star is born” story writ large. When he retired in 1966, Grant was a living legend.

I recall attending a Hollywood movie party in 1984, just two years before Grant died, aged 82. Descending a staircase, I felt every eye from below burning through me. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw Grant’s beaming face and cleft chin and suddenly realized I was invisible. The legend was so close I felt his breath. Others were spellbound. I was speechless.

In the early 1930s, he was just another handsome guy trying to make good after honing his talents in Vaudeville.

It was hit or miss. Grant excelled if the leading lady matched his charisma, energy and luminosity. So we marvel even today when he is paired with the sultry Marlene Dietrich (Blonde Venus), the irrepressibly naughty Mae West (She Done Him Wrong, I’m No Angel) and the witty Joan Bennett (Big Brown Eyes and Wedding Present).

Opposite lesser talents, the results are often mediocre (The Woman Accused, Enter Madame!) or awful (Kiss and Make-Up, Ladies Should Listen).

There are also outliers, including a poignant WWI thriller, The Eagle and the Hawk. Fredric March steals the limelight with a riveting antiwar soliloquy. When Grant needed to defer to greatness, he did.

The reward was greatness in his own right in later films from Bringing up Baby (1938) — the screwball comedy with Katherine Hepburn — to Charade (1963) — the comic spy thriller with Audrey Hepburn.

Lest we forget, there were some great Alfred Hitchcock films in between, including North by Northwest. Legend indeed!

Bruce Kirkland‘s career spans more than four decades, working as a film critic for The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Journal and for 36 years at The Toronto Sun.

bruce.kirkland@hotmail.com


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Oscar Winners to Watch

Oscar winners to watch

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Oscar winners to watch

It was astounding to watch this year’s Oscars and see how willing Hollywood’s old boy network was to shake things up, and chart a more inclusive course for the 21st century in world cinema.

Not only did the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences give four marquee Oscars to the stunning South Korean film Parasite, including Best Picture, but the swells inside the Dolby Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard erupted in rapturous applause when Parasite earned the first one.

It went to writer/director Bong Joon Ho and collaborator Han Jin Won for Best Original Screenplay. The energetic reception was the first clue that something extraordinary was happening. When Parasite added Best International Feature Film (newly renamed from Foreign Language Film), the intensity rose. When Bong took Best Director and lovingly paid tribute to his inspirational rival, Martin Scorsese, standing ovations greeted both icons.

It suddenly seemed inevitable that Parasite – a savagely funny, smart, bittersweet and finally violent treatise on the Korean class system and the world’s environmental crisis – would triumph as Best Picture. And it actually is planet earth’s best of 2019.

It is impossible to overstate what a tsunami of change this represents. Not just the first South Korean film to win a slew of awards, Parasite is the first film not primarily in the english language to win Best Picture in Oscar’s 92-year history. As a mixed-genre crime thriller, drama and comedy, Bong’s electrifying opus is also the most uncompromising winner since Silence of the Lambs (1991).

So, should you see Parasite, now that the applause has subsided and Hollywood has gone back to its obsession with box office? Yes – and Parasite isn’t the only one. Here are the Oscar nominees and winners worth watching, along with two warnings about what to avoid.

Parasite – It’s daring story that focuses on a struggling, working-class family of four, with each carving out a new niche working for a rich family. But what horrors lurk in the basement? What happens next is mesmerizing, and the potent social messages that Bong layers elevates this film to a masterpiece. The material is so rich that Bong is now adapting it into a six-hour HBO extravaganza.

1917 – With a technical filmmaking flourish that propels the audience forward just like his British protagonists, Sam Mendes crafts a harrowing and heartbreaking story of perseverance during a WWI battle. Winner of three Oscars.

Joker – Winner of two Oscars, this is not-a-comic-book movie. Instead, with Best Actor Joaquin Phoenix as his quixotic anti-hero, Todd Phillips conjures a gut-wrenching, human study of a psychotic breakdown.

Marriage Story – The winner of one Oscar, Noah Baumbach’s intimate, autobiographical portrait of a broken marriage features powerful emotions and note-perfect performances from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson.

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood – Oops! In Quentin Tarantino’s first big misfire, this disjointed historical drama revisits the Charles Manson era and bizarrely rewrites history – for no reason. Two Oscars.

Little Women – Argh! Undermining her fine cast, Greta Gerwig trashes a classic story, robbing Louisa May Alcott’s novel of its heart, soul and compelling structure. One Oscar.

Bruce Kirkland‘s career spans more than four decades, working as a film critic for The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Journal and for 36 years at The Toronto Sun.

bruce.kirkland@hotmail.com


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Tribute to celebrities we lost in 2019

A tribute to celebrities we lost in 2019 – they will be missed

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A tribute to celebrities we lost in 2019 – they will be missed

Annually, in a tradition bearing a slightly macabre twist, media recount the dead celebrities of the year. Here I am doing the same thing in Active Life. But there is merit in this exercise in the arts and entertainment arena. We pay tribute to those who may have affected our own lives through their work as actors, singers, filmmakers, producers, creators, writers, social activists and people.

Sometimes, their influence is even profound. I still cherish a 1978 interview I did with legendary actress Lillian Gish, who died in 1993, aged 99. She was my last living link with the silent film era. Gish championed the merits of silent films and the need for preservation, a passion that I share. I shed a tear at her passing.

Of course, the emotional reaction of a fan and/or film critic to a death is nothing like the reaction of family and friends – that is intensely personal. Our reaction is something more public and distant, even if we have met that person.

The roster of celebrities who passed in 2019 does have frisson for me on that public level. The following list is selective. I interviewed several of them during my career, but all created work that struck a chord in my soul.

Doris Day
Doris Day

Doris Day (died at 97) was an American big band singer, then an actress, and a movie and a TV star. I still enjoy the light-hearted, yet smart, romantic comedies she did with pal Rock Hudson. In particular, Pillow Talk (1959) stands out and she was Oscar-nominated.

Carol Channing
Carol Channing

Carol Channing (died at 97) was an American stage, movie and TV actress, a singer and a dancer. On Broadway, she was famous for her effervescent performance in Hello Dolly! (1964), winning best actress. What a doll!

Danny Aiello (died at 86) was an American actor who moved effortlessly between heavyweights such as The Godfather: Part II (1974), to comedies such as The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), to social commentary such as Do the Right Thing (1989), for which he was Oscar-nominated. Always a sweet guy in interviews.

Tim Conway
Tim Conway

Tim Conway (died at 85) was an American actor, comedian and writer. Highlights of The Carol Burnett Show always include his wonky and spontaneous contributions. Fun guy in life.

Caroll Spinney with Oscar the Grouch
Caroll Spinney with Oscar the Grouch

Caroll Spinney (died at 85) was an American puppeteer who originated both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch for Sesame Street in 1969, and played both until 2018. Spinney may not have been famous, but his creations became legends for generations of children.

Peter Mayhew (died at 74) was an English hospital orderly who found his calling as the Wookie Chewbacca in the Star Wars series. This towering giant was a true gentleman.

John Singleton (died at 51) was an American filmmaker. He astounded Hollywood with his dramatic, and unsettling, debut at 24 with Boyz n the Hood (1991), which propelled him forward as the first African-American, and the youngest person ever, to be Oscar-nominated as best director.

More names of significance include Albert Finney, Peter Fonda, Diahann Carroll, Robert Forster, Valerie Harper, Toni Morrison, Rip Torn, Luke Perry, Bruno Ganz, Rutger Hauer, Hal Prince, Carol Lynley, John Wesley and, for classic rock lovers, Cream drummer Ginger Baker.

Bruce Kirkland‘s career spans more than four decades, working as a film critic for The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Journal and for 36 years at The Toronto Sun. bruce.kirkland@hotmail.com

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Bruce Kirkland

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Bruce Kirkland

By Cece M. Scott cecescott.com

Best known as the Toronto Sun’s movie critic for several decades, Bruce Kirkland says, “I had three different careers in my life and I didn’t apply for any of them.”

“AT THE END OF MY SUMMER INTERNSHIP AT THE Toronto Star, I became the paper’s first, full-time music critic, for which I wasn’t really qualified,” says Kirkland. “This role dramatically broadened my interest in the possibilities of a wide breadth of music genres. If the music was good, I wanted to listen to it.”

Bruce Kirkland
Photography by Derek Kirkland

Moving on to the Ottawa Journal in 1979 as the entertainment editor, Kirkland appointed himself the paper’s film critic. He had a little more experience in this field, having watched movies on the family’s old television set. “Most of the films were in black and white,” says Kirkland. “And if I gave a movie ten minutes, I would watch it to the end. This served me well. I went on to be a film critic for 36 years.”

The first interview that Kirkland conducted for the Toronto Sun in 1980 was with Bette Midler, singer, songwriter, actress and comedian. “The interview with Bette was a real kick-start,” says Kirkland, “That is one thing that I do miss since retiring – the opportunity to sit down with people like her.”

His last interview for the Toronto Sun was in 2016 with the influential filmmaker, Martin Scorsese.

Photo by Hugh Harold Kirkland

As a young teen, Kirkland was painfully shy. His father was in the RCAF, which necessitated the family moving 16 times in Kirkland’s first 16 years. Inadvertently falling into journalism (he signed up for the wrong course at the University of Western Ontario), Kirkland decided to pursue it – a decision that proved to be fruitful.

Kirkland has attended 44 Toronto International Film Festivals (TIFF), 31 Cannes Film Festivals, and covered a dozen Oscars. His interviewees include Tommy Lee Jones (his least favourite personality), Russell Crowe (a casual friend), Toronto filmmaker, writer and actor, David Cronenberg, as well as Canadian film director, Atom Egoyan, William Hurt, Mary Steenburgen, and American politician and environmentalist, Al Gore – to name a few.

When reminiscing about the hype that was attached to the illustrious Cannes Film Festival, Kirkland recounts filing his stories by teletype, which were run by local men, who didn’t speak English. They were merely inputting the words that were on the page. “Sometimes it was so garbled my editor didn’t know what I was talking about,” says Kirkland with a laugh. “After the teletype machines, the technology evolved to crude boxy computers that looked like giant lunch boxes, and probably had the computing power of 1/100th of today’s cell phones. High speed internet did not come until much later in my career.”

Kirkland could relate scores of celebrity anecdotes, but when the topic turns to birding (a true birder never calls it bird watching) he becomes visibly animated. “I love travelling, especially in Latin America. I love speaking Spanish, which I continue to study. And I love to feed my birding obsession in Costa Rica.”

Kirkland’s birding preoccupation began in 1976, when he spotted a large gathering of Northern Gannets sitting atop a skyscraper-sized rock on Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. “It was like seeing the Manhattan of the bird world,” says Kirkland. “The area was later declared a reserve, and became protected land. I felt like I was involved in a little bit of nature history. It was a magical, life changing experience.”

At the age of 70, Kirkland is grateful for his physical health. He enjoys working around the house, travelling and hiking. “Walking long distances doesn’t bother me in the least,” says Kirkland. “It is the excitement of the chase, and it is also good exercise. If you are completely bonkers about birding like I am, you want to see every bird possible.”

Kirkland says that his emotional and spiritual wellbeing is a result of his deep friendship with his second wife, Rachel Sa. Sa is an author and former Toronto Sun columnist. She currently works as a public relations manager for an engineering and architectural firm. “Rachel is the love of my life,” says Kirkland.

On safari in Kenya last July, the couple were challenged by a young bull elephant, who trumpeted their vehicle. “The guide told us that the situation was dangerous; that even the click of a camera might frighten the elephant,” says Kirkland. “It was exhilarating, rather than filling us with fear.”

Bottom photo provided by Derek Kirkland

The couple ended up adopting two orphaned elephants (Mukkoka and Enkesha) through the David Sheldrick Foundation. “We got to feel the elephants, experience the texture of their skin and marvel at their eyelashes. We’re still in awe.”

Kirkland currently co-edits and writes for the Ontario Field Ornithologists (OFO) organization, and contributes his much-loved film column for Active Life magazine. “If you have a good life, embrace it, trust it, and expand it every chance you get.”

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Take Two: Edward Norton

Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn

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Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn

It’s no coincidence that actor/director Edward Norton finally made his 1950s-style film noir, Motherless Brooklyn, when a real-life madman occupies the White House, and the United States is torn asunder with political, social and racial unrest. Yet, neither Norton nor his challenging drama, ever mentions Donald Trump or anything happening today. The film (which opens November 1st) is instead set nearly 70 years ago. It just happens to deal with the zeitgeist of current events in America.

Edward Norton plays a 1950s Brooklyn private eye who suffers from Tourette Syndrome.
Edward Norton plays a 1950s Brooklyn private eye who suffers from Tourette Syndrome.

“That is a fairly vital role for movies to play,” explains Norton. “Take Chinatown, which is a look back to the California of the ’30s, made in the ’70s. I don’t think it is coincidental at all that that movie comes at the end of the Vietnam War when the Watergate scandals were breaking open, made by a director (Roman Polanski) whose wife was murdered by a bunch of maniacs. It’s a very challenging film – this idea that the California of the American dream was built on crime, and that the people who committed these crimes raped their daughters, too.”

With other Canadian film journalists, I am sitting with Norton, and his co-star Gugu Mbatha-Raw, in an interview room at the Toronto International Film Festival, chatting about Norton’s first directorial effort in 19 years. This was a passion project for the highly regarded American actor, who is known for films as disparate as Rounders, American History X, Fight Club, Frida, 25th Hour, Moonrise Kingdom, The Bourne Legacy, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman.

For Motherless Brooklyn, Norton worked on his adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel for years, reorganizing the storyline and moving it from the 1990s to the 1950s. He fictionalized all the real-life characters from the ’50s. “The wisdom of doing literary versions of these things is that there is a lot of freedom to distill the essence of certain truths rather than have to explain everything,” says Norton. “There’s a reason that Citizen Kane wasn’t called Citizen Hearst,” he adds, referring to Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece. It was a fictionalized version of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst’s abuse of power.

Motherless Brooklyn follows a detective named Lionel Essrog, played by Norton. Afflicted with Tourette Syndrome, Lionel works for a tough, taciturn, yet sympathetic, boss played by Bruce Willis. Left alone after a tragedy, Lionel tries to unravel a multiple-murder mystery buried inside a gigantic redevelopment scheme that has racial, social and criminal implications.

Norton consulted with Lethem. “I told him that I felt that there was an issue – that he had written a ’50s hard-boiled bunch of characters, but he set them in the modern world. In film, which is very literal, I didn’t want it to feel like the Blues Brothers. You know, guys in fedoras in the modern world. And he agreed with that 100 per cent.”

Playing a man with Tourette’s, while also directing the film, posed another challenge for Norton. It was an added complication. “There were many arguments against directing and acting in this,” says Norton. “One of the arguments for it was knowing that I could experiment with the condition a lot, but also be the one who sculpted the balance of it later [in the editing room].”

Risky? Yes, but worth it, says Norton. “There aren’t a lot of things that end up being good that aren’t creatively risky on some level.”

Bruce Kirkland‘s career spans more than four decades, working as a film critic for The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Journal and for 36 years at The Toronto Sun.

A life-long film buff, Bruce now shares his passion and insight with Active Life readers.

bruce.kirkland@hotmail.com


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Out of Africa

Out of Africa – what they got right in the movie

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Out of Africa – what they got right in the movie

In July, I visited a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. This is no ordinary farm. It was made famous by white colonist Karen Blixen, the Danish aristocrat and author who conjured her adventures in a lyrical book, Out of Africa.

In 1985, American filmmaker Sydney Pollack turned that 1937 autobiography, and other sources, into a romantic melodrama with Meryl Streep as Blixen. Out of Africa won hearts, generated box office revenue, promoted safari tourism in Kenya and scored seven Academy Awards.

Inexplicably, the Oscar haul included best picture. More about this perplexing, if staggeringly beautiful, epic in a moment.

Blixen’s actual farm house, Mbagathi, is now the Karen Blixen Museum, located in the affluent Nairobi suburb of Karen. The handsome dwelling is filled with some of Blixen’s belongings and more so by props donated by Universal Pictures.

Because Mbagathi was unavailable at the time, Pollack positioned cinematographer David Watkin at Blixen’s first Kenyan house, the nearby Mbogani. No matter, Hollywood always takes liberties. As I have often warned, no one should ever believe most of what they see in a film, even when it is “based on” or “inspired by” a true story. Getting “the essence” right is a better benchmark.

What I did not realize when writing about Out of Africa in 1985 was how much Pollack & company did get right. It took a 2019 African safari, and time spent in Kenya with Kenyans, to understand what really matters.

This personal reassessment astounds me. Not that film critics refuse to change their minds in the years following first impressions. But rarely does it occur for the reasons I have finally come to appreciate Out of Africa, both as a book and as a movie.

Okay, the movie is still melodramatic. The focus is still on Karen Blixen’s bad marriage to a philandering Swedish baron (played by Klaus Maria Brandauer) and her subsequent love affair with English big game hunter Denys Finch Hatton (played as a pseudo-American by Robert Redford).

Streep and Brandauer are excellent. But Redford’s boyish charm cannot salvage his boring performance. His fireside proclamations as the untamed Finch Hatton ring hollow. The love affair is a fizzle, not a sizzle.

Instead, the movie soars through its dramatization of racial and cultural complexity. At a time of British racism and colonial segregation, Blixen did things differently — and the transcendent Streep delivers this message with subtle power and dignity. We feel Blixen’s empathy for, and understanding of, the indigenous peoples, especially the Kikuyu who worked on her coffee plantation. I repeatedly experienced a modern echo of that myself in Kenya.

Leave the last word to the Kenyan guide who escorted my wife, Rachel Sa, and I around the Karen Blixen Museum. “We respect and revere her,” the young woman said of Blixen, who started a school, provided medical aid, and fought to give the Kikuyu land when she returned to Denmark in 1931. “Karen Blixen was not like the others.”

This is the gift Out of Africa still offers today.

Bruce Kirkland‘s career spans more than four decades, working as a film critic for The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Journal and for 36 years at The Toronto Sun.

A life-long film buff, Bruce now shares his passion and insight with Active Life readers.

bruce.kirkland@hotmail.com


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Take Two: David Lynch

David Lynch is the ultimate disruptor of mainstream films

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David Lynch is the ultimate disruptor of mainstream films

No one has fully understood, properly analyzed or thoroughly dissected the life and times of American filmmaker David Lynch. For that, cinephiles are eternally grateful. We secretly yearn for surrealists, such as Lynch, to spin his elaborate tales because they defy gravity and turn logic into madness. Re-watch his television triumph Twin Peaks for all the giddy evidence you need. Plus, you get pie.

David Lynch
David Lynch

We need his cryptic mysteries because they do not always get solved in routine ‘whodunit’ ways. Re-experience Blue Velvet, his early cinematic masterpiece. Plus, you see the late Dennis Hopper, as the ultimate method actor, doing his career-best performance.

Blue Velvet (1986)
Blue Velvet (1986)

Finally, we value an artist who is the ultimate disruptor, because most mainstream filmmakers are now obliged to be mundane conformists by their Hollywood bosses. Reevaluate Mulholland Drive, Lynch’s mature masterwork, in this context. Plus, you get a dizzying trip into the machinations of old Hollywood.

Now 73, Lynch is in another lull in production since his successful return to Twin Peaks in 2017. No matter, something wonderful and/or weird is sure to happen. And, we are allowed more time to contemplate his universe. Not incidentally, in July and August, the Toronto International Film Festival launches David Lynch: The Big Dream at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Setting out to chart ‘the director’s ascension from cult favourite to cultural icon,’ TIFF will screen the features Eraserhead (1977), The Elephant Man (1980), Dune (1984), Blue Velvet (1986), Wild at Heart (1990), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), Lost Highway (1997), The Straight Story (1999) and Mulholland Drive (2001).

The Elephant Man (1980)
The Elephant Man (1980)

TIFF’s Brad Deane, who curated The Big Dream, has also lined up some of Lynch’s provocative shorts. These include his student-era drama, The Grandmother, the strange story of a neglected boy who, from a seed, grows his own grandmother as a caregiver. The ‘seeds’ of Lynch’s future work are found here.

But why now at TIFF? “For me,” says Deane. “It’s the new Twin Peaks series that triggered this – just seeing how relevant it all is and how innovative he still is as an artist. The lure is the mix of the most traditional forms of filmmaker with the avantgarde. So it is a good time to go back and revisit all the work.”

The Straight Story (1999)
The Straight Story (1999)

Meanwhile, no one who has ever met Lynch – and I interviewed him repeatedly for The Toronto Sun – has seen him without a cigarette. He’s a relentless chain-smoker. After 9/11, when stranded at the Toronto film fest, Lynch refused to join friends who offered him a lift home to New York in a non-smoking van. He waited until a smoking-friendly opportunity arose.

Puffing or not, Lynch is always charming. But every interview that I transcribed led to one conclusion: I still do not really know what goes on inside his mind. The inspiration that drew him into the sadomasochistic weirdness of Blue Velvet; the obsession with the road movie motif that led to such oddly diverse films such as Lost Highway and The Straight Story; his fascination with deformity that plunged him into The Elephant Man saga; these all eluded me.

And, yes, this is a good thing. Not all mysteries should be revealed.

Bruce Kirkland‘s career spans more than four decades, working as a film critic for The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Journal and for 36 years at The Toronto Sun.

A life-long film buff, Bruce now shares his passion and insight with Active Life readers.

bruce.kirkland@hotmail.com


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ROMA - An elegiac cinematic poem

ROMA – An elegiac cinematic poem

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ROMA – An elegiac cinematic poem

As I write this, Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma has been acclaimed to a remarkable level with 10 Oscar nominations, and another 140-plus citations from critics’ circles and awards organizations world-wide.

By the time you read this, Roma will have churned through its awards season. At centre stage are the Oscars on February 24th. Roma is expected to compete with the other film tied for the nominations lead: Greek-born Yorgos Lanthimos’ wildly operatic The Favourite – an 18th century British history lesson.

No two films among Oscar’s eight best picture nominees could be more dissimilar. Their stories are radically polarized. The Favourite rips into the rich tapestry of the inept reign of Queen Anne, circa 1702 to 1714. Roma weaves a quotidian tale of a middle-class family, focusing on the clan’s indigenous nanny, in Mexico City, circa 1971.

The contrast between the two films is true for tone, mood, pace, attitude, impact, subtext, raison d’etre, socio-political acumen, stark images, and the way each director handles emotional highs/lows. Yet, both are great films.

For me, though, Roma is the stunning and timeless masterpiece, while The Favourite is a bawdy entertainment that might soon be forgotten.

Cuarón is already a double Oscar-winner for directing and editing his space drama Gravity (2013). Hurrah, but what happens (or has happened) to Roma at this year’s Academy Awards will not change its place in cinematic history as an elegiac cinematic poem. Roma is already an outlier. First, because it was produced by, and shown on, Netflix, instead of by a Hollywood studio and screened in theatres. Second, because Cuarón photographed it in lambent black-and-white, instead of lurid colour. Third, because his Spanish-language story is an intimate journey through personal memory, not a familiar English-language drama with a constructed plot.

Cuarón dedicates Roma to Lido, his own nanny of indigenous heritage. Lido raised Alfonso and his siblings from infancy. He calls her, “a second mother to us all.”

Lido is “fictionalized” as Cleo in Roma, yet feels real and authentic. She is played in her acting debut by Oscar-nominated Mexican educator Yalitza Aparicio. Her naturalistic performance is as shattering as it is understated.

Cleo works alongside Adela (also played by an indigenous newcomer, Nancy Garcia Garcia). They serve a chaotic family headed by Senora Sofia (Oscar-nominated Marina de Tavira). The husband is a lost cause. The four kids are a crazy handful. Granny is doddering. Roma charts a year of personal upheavals in their collective lives. Daily events are vividly set against the maelstrom of Mexico City earthquakes, student protests, fascist uprisings, state-sanctioned murders, government corruption and brutal oppression of indigenous people.

Yet Roma is always lyrical at its heart, if unsentimental. Much more is communicated by image than dialogue. The film’s micro scale is sometimes joyous, sometimes heart-breaking, while Cuarón subtly transcends obvious class differences. Ultimately, beautifully, the tendrils of love stretch across the class divide. Roma is a life force.

Bruce Kirkland‘s career spans more than four decades, working as a film critic for The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Journal and for 36 years at The Toronto Sun.

A life-long film buff, Bruce now shares his passion and insight with Active Life readers.

bruce.kirkland@hotmail.com


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TAKE TWO: First Man

First Man – One giant leap for mankind

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First Man – One giant leap for mankind

Movies have blasted off to the moon for 106 years, first with French illusionist George Méliès’ fantastical silent short, Le Voyage dans la Lune. But nobody has done it since with the mesmerizing personal intensity that you can now experience with Damien Chazelle’s First Man.

The film is epic, historic, claustrophobic, heart-stopping, realistic and emotionally harrowing. Ryan Gosling, who is currently Canada’s preeminent star in Hollywood, portrays an American icon, astronaut Neil Armstrong. This is an exceptionally masterful performance worthy of an Oscar nomination.

Gosling vividly brings the man back from the grave, making him flesh-and-blood with all the wonderment that Armstrong possessed in life, including the courage and curiosity that propelled him into the NASA space program. But these heroic qualities are juxtaposed with his unsettling dark side, to the point that Gosling makes us queasy in family scenes where Armstrong submerges his emotions, especially with his wife Janet (Claire Foy). First Man is subtle drama, not American propaganda.

Ryan Gosling, who is currently Canada's pre-eminent star in Hollywood, portrays an American icon, astronaut Neil Armstrong, in First Man.
Ryan Gosling, who is currently Canada’s pre-eminent star in Hollywood, portrays an American icon, astronaut Neil Armstrong, in First Man.

Armstrong is worthy of such intimate probing. History remembers exactly what he did on July 20, 1969. Armstrong stepped off of Apollo 11’s lunar module, becoming the first human to walk on the moon. At that moment, he uttered his famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The brilliance of First Man, besides extraordinary visuals and soundscapes that allow viewers to join the Apollo crew, is how Chazelle spins the story as a journey. Working from Josh Singer’s screenplay, which was based on James R. Hansen’s book, Chazelle personalizes that journey from 1961 through 1969.

We see how the Cold War and competition from the Soviet Union fuelled the American space exploration program. We see how tragedy shattered it, pushing even the taciturn Armstrong to the brink. We see how political interference nearly scuttled it; and we see how the success of 1969 riveted millions on Planet Earth.

Yet that bigness is focused into tiny moments of humanity. Hollywood is often, and justly, accused of exaggerating or distorting true stories. But First Man rings truer than most of its kind. And, while other Hollywood space movies such as The Right Stuff (1983) and Apollo 13 (1995) lay claim to the same territory, First Man is the most visceral.

I wrote this column before the Hollywood awards season started in earnest. I am uneasy that First Man will fall short, because it does not possess the razzle-dazzle of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13. It also does not shimmer with the romance of the last Chazelle-Gosling collaboration, La La Land (2016).

That retro musical tied the all-time Oscar noms record with 14, winning six. I predict that First Man earns six nominations, winning two. But it is critical to emphasize that, regardless of awards, First Man is both exceptional and important. It will stand the test of time, just as Méliès’ fantasy (A Trip to the Moon) from 1902 does for its contribution to world cinema.

Bruce Kirkland‘s career spans more than four decades, working as a film critic for The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Journal and for 36 years at The Toronto Sun.

A life-long film buff, Bruce now shares his passion and insight with Active Lifereaders.

bruce.kirkland@hotmail.com


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TAKE TWO: Moral Dilema

Moral dilemma: How do we separate the work from the person?

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Moral dilemma: How do we separate the work from the person?

by Bruce Kirkland

The #MeToo movement has already had a profound effect on society in general, and the entertainment industry in particular, especially in the United States.

This of course is a good thing, with the rules of engagement beginning to balance out in the Battle of the Sexes. The day of reckoning for perverts, deviants and sex criminals has become a year of vengeful justice, at least in the court of public opinion. Former film producer, Harvey Weinstein, is now a pariah who faces multiple charges. In September, comedian Bill Cosby was finally convicted of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to prison after decades of eluding punishment. There are many other guilty parties, many of whom have had their careers, reputations and lives disrupted and/or destroyed.

The fact that #MeToo has done nothing to effect change in the White House, where an accused sex offender remains as U.S. president, is no reflection on the movement. Instead, it illustrates the insanity of American partisan politics.

But this column is not about politics – it’s about the entertainment industry. Getting Weinstein out of action and into court is a blessing. With dozens of accusers, and at least 13 women who allege that Weinstein raped them, this man should never be allowed to wield power and use it to abuse women. Nor should anyone else be so empowered, on any scale.

However, I’m struggling with an unfortunate side issue. How should I, or anyone else who supports the #MeToo Movement, deal with the cultural artifacts left behind? People I know, and respect, have struggled for years when watching actor/ director Woody Allen’s films, which include a clutch of American classics. Likewise, the often stunning work of actor/ director (and convicted sex offender) Roman Polanski is under scrutiny as he continues his career in exile. Polanski is about to shoot J’accuse, a truelife, 19th century drama about the Dreyfus affair – a miscarriage of justice.

Meanwhile, what do we do about our feelings towards the dozens of films produced by Harvey Weinstein since 1981? It’s easy to forget about his debut The Burning, a cheesy horror flick. It is difficult to deal with Pulp Fiction, The English Patient, Good Will Hunting, Shakespeare in Love, Gangs of New York, Cold Mountain, The Aviator, The King’s Speech, The Artist, Django Unchained, Lion and many, many more titles.

CAPTION: Harvey Weinstein

Can we free ourselves of guilt by ignoring Weinstein’s involvement, instead focusing on the writers, directors, actors and technicians who made the films? This is my choice, but I do not feel 100 per cent confident. Doubts remain. Did any of these filmmakers know of Weinstein’s behaviour during their productions? If some of them did know, did they choose to let it slide for personal gain?

Other films not involving Weinstein are easier to deal with directly. But the moral choices are still challenging. American Beauty is also an American classic. Yet it happens to star Kevin Spacey, who is under investigation for a series of alleged sexual assaults in the U.S. and Britain. Right now, and perhaps forever, I cannot look at Spacey’s face in American Beauty, in past episodes of the otherwise brilliant TV series House of Cards, or in anything else.

And the sad truth is that Spacey is not the only one who has already ruined the experience of watching great films or TV shows.

Bruce Kirkland‘s career spans more than four decades, working as a film critic for The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Journal and for 36 years at The Toronto Sun.

A life-long film buff, Bruce now shares his passion and insight with Active Life readers.

bruce.kirkland@hotmail.com


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